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Friday, December 03, 2021

What Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire tells us about our age of aggressive nationalism

India is Bimala, the film’s female protagonist, much as Tagore had intended and Ray had visualised — caught between two opposing ideologies. Like in Ghare Baire, there is a clear choice between the painstaking work of inclusive progress which is often slow; and decisive but divisive action that has catastrophic consequences for a pluralistic society.

Written by Anirban Mahapatra | New Delhi |
March 22, 2020 10:30:15 am
Satyajit Ray, Ghare Baire, The Home and the World, Ghawre Bairey Aaj, Devi, Hirak Rajar Deshe, Ganashatru, Pather Panchali, nationalism, jingoism The film illustrated the choice between swift, divisive action and the painstaking work of inclusive progress.

Towards the end of Satyajit Ray’s film Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), a poignant scene unfolds. Nikhil Choudhury, a benevolent zamindar of a rural community in East Bengal, is meeting influential Hindus at his estate. The mood is sombre. Sandip Mukherjee, his one-time friend and now firebrand Swadeshi leader, has stoked communal tensions by inciting violence against Muslim villagers. Nikhil beseeches the assembled Hindu gentry to do whatever they can to prevent riots from breaking out. “We can choose to believe what we want to, but we have no right to interfere in the religions of others. Muslims are a part of India. This is a fact of history. We must accept it. We cannot imagine India without Muslims…Please, I beg of you, don’t permit this violence to continue,” he says.

Why should we care about Ghare Baire, a film released in 1984, based on a short novel written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1916? Simply put, because Ghare Baire has managed to stay relevant in the context of subcontinental current affairs for over 100 years (it has been contemporised by Aparna Sen in her 2019 film, Ghawre Bairey Aaj).
Today, we see the rapid rise of a kind of exclusionary nationalism, in which dissenting voices are silenced. The medium of communication has become modern, but not the message: on WhatsApp and Twitter, we are witnessing the wholesale daily vilification and exclusion of entire communities who have lived in India for centuries by those who we considered our friends and relatives. What should we do under these circumstances? This is a question at the heart of Ghare Baire.

The novel is set shortly after the First Partition of Bengal in 1905. The Viceroy of India had realised that by splitting the province, he could drive a wedge between the Hindus, a majority in the west, and the Muslims in the east. In response, the Swadeshi movement championed especially by Hindus, called for a boycott of British-made goods. Initially, Tagore was supportive of the struggle — writing songs and essays and promoting the tying of rakhis to foster harmony between communities. Over time, the Swadeshi movement gave significant momentum to the Indian nationalist struggle, and the Partition of Bengal was reversed.

But the history of the movement is also complicated. Extreme elements within the movement embraced violence and anarchy. Muslims in the province was generally opposed, or ambivalent to it. Communal violence broke out in East Bengal in 1906. That year, the Muslim League was founded in Dhaka. Writing in Banglapedia, the national encyclopedia of Bangladesh, historian Ranjit Roy says that “the Swadeshi movement indirectly alienated the general Muslim public from national politics” since it was strongly associated with Hindu revivalism. Tagore opposed this violence and withdrew from politics.

Tagore did not live to see the Partition of India, but he was alive when Ray joined Santiniketan in 1940. Much of the same rational humanist strain that Tagore espoused runs through the body of Ray’s works too. Devi (1960) warns of the dangers of irrational beliefs. Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980) depicts sycophancy and brainwashing in an autocratic regime. And Ganashatru (1990) lionises speaking truth to power. These themes are also elaborated in Ghare Baire. Ray had plans of making it into a film around the time of Partition, even before Pather Panchali (1955), his first film, was released. But he had to wait decades to finish the project.

Tagore wrote the novel from the perspective of the three main characters — Nikhil, a kind, thoughtful zamindar; Sandip, his friend and an ambitious nationalist leader; and Bimala Choudhury, who is married to Nikhil, but who must choose between the two men and their opposing viewpoints. Bimala is in purdah, secluded in the interior of a palatial estate of the Choudhury’s. When Nikhil introduces her to Sandip, she soon becomes enamoured with him and his ideology and betrays her husband in the process.

“My country does not become mine simply because I am born in it. It becomes mine the day I am able to grab it by force,” says Sandip. It exemplifies the worldview of the charismatic leader for whom the country must be conquered. Sandip is extremely persuasive, often using his magnetic personality to sway others, but he is not averse to violence when persuasion doesn’t work. Unable to convince Muslim traders in the local market to abandon foreign goods, his associates pilfer their possessions, burn their farms and sink the boat on which foreign goods are brought to the market.

Tagore made his disdain for violent nationalism evident in Ghare Baire and in his essays. He fervently believed that political freedom would ultimately be hollow without social upliftment, writing “we must remember whatever weakness we cherish in our society will become the source of danger in politics.” His own thoughts come out of Nikhil’s mouth, when he says of Sandip and his supporters, “They have created an abstract image of the country which they would like to worship, but this has no basis in reality.”

Bimala is not naive, but at the outset, she genuinely believes in Sandip and his cause, as do most viewers. We are captivated by his words. But by the time Bimala realises Sandip is interested in her mainly as a means of fulfilling his own ambition, events have been set into motion that is irreversible.

Nikhil warns us, again and again, to be wary of quick solutions. Yet, after watching Ghare Baire again, I found myself wondering why Nikhil didn’t do more to expel Sandip outright. He trusted that Bimala would see through Sandip’s ways, but he didn’t do enough to convince her. As she embraced Sandip, Nikhil withdrew.

India is Bimala, much as Tagore had intended and Ray had visualised — caught between two opposing ideologies. Like in Ghare Baire, there is a clear choice between the painstaking work of inclusive progress which is often slow; and decisive but divisive action that has catastrophic consequences for a pluralistic society.

Anirban Mahapatra trained as a scientist, but now splits his time between a desk job and travel.

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